The Connection Between Religious Freedom and Immigration Policy – The Potential Impact of President Trump’s EOs on Religious “Sanctuary” Organizations

The Connection Between Religious Freedom and Immigration Policy – The Potential Impact of President Trump’s EOs on Religious “Sanctuary” Organizations

Chelsea Langston Bombino, February 2, 2017

Central to the core beliefs of many religions is the call to serve the stranger and to advocate for the oppressed. Freedom to engage in serving or advocating for marginalized persons, including immigrants and refugees, in obedience to a religious precept is not always at the forefront of religious freedom discussions in this country. But in light of the new administration’s recent actions, it is time to start thinking about the connection between religious freedom and immigration.

Last week, President Trump announced an Executive Order that would, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, “strip federal grant money from the sanctuary states and cities that harbor illegal immigrants.” The Executive Order guides the Office of Management and Budget to assemble data on sanctuary areas that presently receive grant funds. What is a sanctuary jurisdiction?  Broadly speaking, these are cities or localities around the country that “have policies in place designed to limit cooperation with, or involvement in federal enforcement actions.”

In addition to this Executive Order, the Trump administration also announced plans to move forward with construction of a wall at the U.S border with Mexico and to expand immigration detention facilities and deportation practices. The administration also announced on Friday executive action that will severely limit refugees and displaced persons from certain Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s executive order, as the Washington Post summarizes: “bar people from the Muslim-majority countries of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen from entering the United States for 30 days and suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.”

Although religious freedom recently has frequently been associated with matters of sex (from contraceptives to definitions of marriage to LGBT issues), Trump’s immigration policies raise new challenges for religious freedom.  To be sure, the federal government is responsible for securing our borders and safeguarding our physical security, and religious freedom is not a magic wand that compels every other consideration to be waived.  But the immediate reaction of many religious leaders and faith-based organizations to the new administration’s refugee and immigration policies is a reminder that “religion” extends far beyond worship and “religious freedom” is implicated in policies that go far beyond churches or even sex.

Diverse faith-based organizations whose missions call them to both honor God and serve their neighbors are exercising their religious freedom in speaking out against these executive orders, and in sharing how these orders will hurt the very people that their organizations, established because of a religious calling, are compelled to serve. With respect to the administration’s position toward sanctuary communities, Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush makes the point that Trump’s penalizing of sanctuary cities may be a foreshadowing “that sanctuary congregations, houses of worship that protect immigrants out of religious convictions, are next.”

In a news release, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) characterized Trump’s E.O on sanctuary cities as “disregard[ing] the judgement of state and local law enforcement on how best to protect their communities.” The USCCB’s Committee on Migration Chair Bishop Vasquez spoke of how these Executive Orders will negatively impact those the Catholic Church seeks to serve in its various ministry activities. Vasquez discussed witnessing the “harmful effects of immigrant detention in our ministries” as well as the “traumatized children in our churches and schools.” The USCCB’s public statement advocating against the Trump administration’s actions represents a powerful example of institutional religious freedom embodied: the USCCB is fully incarnating its freedom to both speak out against policies that harm the vulnerable and to act to continue to serve migrants who are harmed by such policies.

Other religious organizations’ faith-shaped missions are calling them to exercise their religious freedom to advocate against the White House’s immigration policies. Robert Bank, the President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, wrote in Haaretz, “These policies violate our deepest Jewish values, including the belief that all people are created in the same image and are deserving of infinite respect.”  World Relief, an Evangelical international organization serving vulnerable populations, including migrants, released a statement emphasizing how Trump’s immigration policies could limit their organizational capacity to live out their faith-based mission to serve vulnerable people: “The new presidential administration is expected to announce significant changes to U.S. Immigration policy…that compromise our ability to adequately care for refugees and immigrants.”

The Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) issued a statement connecting the Episcopal Church’s work with refugee resettlement to both its religious values and religious freedom. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, according to EPPN, “is an emblem of our nation’s values of religious freedom and equal opportunity for all, regardless of background.” Moreover, Presiding Bishop Michael Burry, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries, described the Episcopal Church’s faith-centered calling to serve the stranger, “The work of Episcopal Migration Ministries is God’s work, and we show the face of God through the care and compassion in that work.”

These diverse faith organizations believe they are shaped by a sacred calling to serve the stranger. They are committed to their transcendent calling to fully embody their religious mission to love their neighbors as themselves, both in how they provide services to displaced persons, and how they advocate on behalf of these marginalized migrants. These faith-based entities are exercising their religious freedom by carrying out their religious missions in three important areas of their organizational lives. First, they are engaging in faith-shaped organizational practices to provide transformational services that honor the inherent dignity of all migrants. Second, these religious groups are advocating to influence public policies that both advance their organizational freedom to continue to serve migrants and uphold public justice for migrants themselves. And lastly, these organizations are engaging in a faith-centered public witness of why their religious beliefs call them to both serve and advocate for the stranger, and why they need the organizational religious freedom to do this.

In short, these varied religious institutions are engaging as active organizational citizens to help shape the environment, both in public policy and in public perception, which they will need to fully live out their faith-based missions to serve least among us.  As Alan Cross and Gus Reyes recently wrote in Time: “Religious liberty is not just about matters of conscience or how one worships.  It also involves whether one has freedom to obey his religion’s commands, especially when it comes to serving and caring for those in need.  We’re now facing new religious liberty concerns related to our churches’ ability to minister to immigrants.”